Network Rail wants to end the contract culture by taking on the role of contractor and subcontractor. Could this be the end of the line for disputes?
I can't help wondering if this fella John Armitt has come up with a good idea for getting rid of masses of disputes. He might even give you a good idea for getting buildings built better. Armitt is a civil engineer. He became chairman of Laing Civil Engineering and John Laing International; he spent 27 years with them. Then he went on to Union Railways tasked with the development of the high speed rail link to the Channel Tunnel. Then he went to Costain and brought that troubled enterprise back into profit. No slouch! Now he's taken on Network Rail. And, if your train was late this morning, it is a pound to a pinch of snuff that Mr Armitt's outfit was responsible … on the face of things. But don't stop reading because of that, because he has just done something very odd; so odd that it might work.

Network Rail has decided not to renew the Amey rail maintenance contract for the track between Paddington and Reading. Instead, says Mr Armitt, he is going to do the £50m works in-house. Put another way, Network Rail is going to become the main contractor as well as client. The notion is not only to manage the work but to do the work that would ordinarily be sublet beyond Amey. So Network Rail is angling to become a real old-fashioned building and maintenance contractor. Crumbs! That means they will be taking on bricklayers, carpenters, even painters and decorators.

Can you imagine the shift in construction as a whole if Armitt's idea works? It might be the end of construction management and management contracting. We shall shortly see fee-earning construction managers abandoning their hush puppies to don wellington boots and become, dare I say it, actual builders. The union boss Mick Rix of ASLEF agrees with all this. He wants to reverse out of what is called "contract culture". He puts up the idea that once numerous organisations become involved in one task, nobody "takes ownership", nobody wants to really take responsibility.

There is an element of truth in this, although main contractors will rubbish the idea. They take responsibility for the errors and omissions of their subcontractors. That's true. But they pick up the contractual pieces after the mistakes have been made, and that's too late on the railways. And, yes, there is a huge difference between a builder whose own bricklayers are on the job and a contractor who sublets the bricklaying to a brickwork subcontractor, who sublets the labour to a labour master, who sublets the hod carrying to a bloke he met in the pub last night. The subcontract package is not just getting someone else to buy and lay bricks; it is confused with subletting "ownership" of the brickwork.

Does Armitt really mean to employ tradesmen as employees and buy dumpers, the odd cement mixer, a bucket or two? It is a stunning move

Mr Armitt is going to do the whole lot himself. It is, of course, an experiment. Until now the rail company linked arms with its term contractor and managed its way through broken rails, replacement parts, repainting station … to say nothing of maintaining tunnels, bridges, viaducts and more besides. He is taking on 500 Amey staff but says he will also take on the men who wield the pick, paintbrush and plasterer's trowel. As I said, he is not only elbowing the contractor off the pitch, but the subcontractors and their sub-subcontractors, too. Does he really mean to employ tradesmen as employees and does he really mean to buy dumpers, the odd cement mixer, a bucket or two? It is a stunning move.

It is not as if Mr Armitt is an outsider to construction. He must know full well that contractors have backed away from actually doing the work over the past 30 years. It is better to work for a fee and better to earn that fee by managing the subcontractors. Let these lower order chaps take the risks. Better to invest in beating the subbies down on price. Better to invest in compiling a homemade subcontract. And much better to scout around for which subbies made a poor fist of the job and then run out the contractual claim. That is what "contract culture" is all about.